WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he will have to lay off 200,000 civilian employees and contractors, terminate military contracts and partially shut down U.S. military bases unless Congress acts quickly to approve additional funding for the Iraq war.
Echoing similar warnings from past funding battles, Gates said the Army and Marine Corps will develop plans for sharp spending cuts unless Congress moves to provide $196 billion that President Bush has requested.
On Tuesday, Bush signed a separate $471 billion defense appropriation bill. But that spending measure includes little of the money needed to keep the wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House has offered the president $50 billion as a bridge fund for the wars but would require most combat troops to leave Iraq by December 2008.
The White House has vowed to veto the bill if it passes the Senate in a vote planned today.
Gates said he has little ability to move money within the defense budget to pay for war expenses, despite new authority contained in the bill signed by Bush this week. Gates said the department was authorized to move only $3.7 billion, which would fund the wars for about a week.
“There is a misperception that this department can continue funding our troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers, that we can shuffle money around the department,” Gates said. “This is a serious misconception.”
But congressional Democrats, who remember similar warnings from Gates earlier this year, reacted skeptically. Defense officials complained in February about drastic consequences if a funding bill was not passed then; the bleak scenarios did not come to pass, even though the bill was not passed until May.
“We have determined that both peacetime and war operations can be sustained, with no impact to troop readiness, until at least March 2008,” said Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
At a Senate hearing Thursday, top Army leaders also tried to ratchet up the pressure on lawmakers to pass the supplemental funding. Failing to approve the money, said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, “sends the wrong message to soldiers.”
Army Secretary Pete Geren said that furloughs of Army civilians would have to begin by February.
“This will fall most heavily on … home-based troops and their families,” Geren said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the Congress was “nickeling and diming” the military by not passing the supplemental funding.
“Those troops are entitled to absolute support,” Sessions said.
But Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia dismissed suggestions that his party was “reluctant to fund people on the battlefield.”
Some Democrats appeared ready for a major confrontation with the White House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that House Democrats would refuse to send the president a funding bill free of conditions if the measure passed by House lawmakers is blocked by Republicans in the Senate.
“We’re not going to be taking it up any more over here,” she told reporters.
In addition to voting on the House’s partial funding measure, the Senate also is likely to vote on a Republican alternative to provide $70 billion without requiring a troop withdrawal.